At some point, every Texas writer — or serious reader — must come to terms with “Mr. Texas.”
To the extent that Austinites today recognize the name of folklorist, teacher and widely published columnist, J. Frank Dobie, they might associate it with a middle school, or a freshly renovated mall at the base of a dormitory tower (despite the fact that Dobie hated high-rises), or perhaps with “Philosophers’ Rock,” a sculptural tribute at Barton Springs devoted to Dobie and his gabbing buddies Roy Bedichek and Walter Prescott Webb.
The literary-minded might also think of the Dobie Paisano Ranch, which serves as a writer’s retreat on Barton Creek for Dobie Fellows, or the modest Dobie residence across from the University of Texas Law School, where writing students sometimes meet.
Born in 1888, Dobie came out of South Texas brush country with an abiding interest in cowboy yarns, legends of lost treasure, and tales of conquistadors, cattle drives and desert rats. Dobie struggled at first to find his voice, but struck gold in the mass-market magazine trade that was hungry for adventure stories.
He then expanded those articles, sometimes scantily, into two dozen books. He took up residence at UT and mentored subsequent generations of folkorists and writers. A the same time, he penned a weekly column that was published in dozens of newspapers. He died in 1964.
As Steven L. Davis describes in his superb biography, “J. Frank Dobie: A Liberated Mind,” the folklorist’s intellectual journey took him from unreconstructed attitudes toward Mexicans, Native-Americans and African-Americans — as well as a belief in the self-reliance of rough-and-ready Texans — to become one of the most progressive and open-minded columnists in the state, the bane of the postwar Establishment. He also mentored Hispanic and African-American folklorists, although he broke with the social scientists in the field who insisted on undiluted field notes rather than lovingly burnished stories. His motto: “Any tale belongs to whoever best tells it.”
One can certainly ignore Dobie and still understand Texas. Or one can choose other, better writers such as Katherine Anne Porter, Larry McMurtry, Horton Foote, Stephen Harrigan, Americo Paredes, Sarah Bird, Don Graham, Attica Locke or Lawrence Wright to gain your initial insights about the state.
I, for one, avoided Dobie for as long as I could. First, I’m allergic to thickly applied dialect, whether from otherwise great authors such as George Eliot (the unreadable “The Mill on the Floss”) or local heroes like John Henry Faulk (whenever told an extended story in someone else’s down-home voice). Also, Dobie’s tales seemed directed at a youthful audience, let’s face it, mostly boys, and rarely have I been able to reread even beloved adventure stories from childhood with much pleasure in my later years.
So what drew me to Dobie in my sixties? One writer, other than Davis, who got me over the conceptual hump was Bill Wittliff, whose masterful recreation of various Texas dialects in his “Devil’s Backbone” series of picaresque novels is an absolute delight. (A third volume comes out this fall from UT Press.)
So maybe Dobie’s liberally applied Texas dialects might not set my teeth on edge.
Also, I’d recently read the collected works of Porter, who sparred with Dobie over their respective places among Texas writers, and came away with the impression that she is among America’s greats, at her best on par with her near contemporaries William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Davis warned me personally that the seven volumes kept in print by the University of Texas Press were uneven. In response, he recently finished a volume of “The Essential J. Frank Dobie,” a “best of” edition to be valued because Dobie could rise to sustained excellence, as I later discovered. It comes out in Fall 2019 from Texas A&M University Press.
The proximate cause for my deep dive into Dobie, however, was a trip to the still-new offices of UT Press, where all their volumes in print are displayed in the reception area. As a diehard bibliophile, I was dazzled. Then I slipped my fingers across the seven beautifully designed Dobie paperbacks with their vintage-looking covers.
This paperback series, by the way, is kept in print because of a bequest from Dobie’ estate in the 1970s. Someone was thinking ahead to the day when Dobie was no longer a celebrity! Now they are mostly available via “print on demand.”
I asked for all seven. Then slowly read them, sometimes giving up altogether, then winding my way back to the stack.
“Uneven” does not begin to describe the books. Some are barely strung-together anecdotes, the kind you might find in an old-fashioned “general interest” column in a newspaper, stitched together by ellipses. “Rattlesnakes” and “The Longhorns” tend to follow this pattern. Interesting in spurts, but repetitive in an unappealing way.
Other Dobie’s collections present thicker stories, such as the nuggets in “Tales of Old-Time Texas” or “I’ll Tell You a Tale.” Still, the familiar patterns are burned into the narrative leather and you must be patient with them.
Lost mines and buried treasures tickled Dobie’s readers and he really does make the search for them compelling in “Apache Gold and Yacqui Silver” and, especially, “Coronado’s Children,” the book that probably holds up best.
In a special category is “The Ben Lilly Legend,” which benefits from a focused subject — a great American hunter. Dobie pursued this story with relish and persistence. I’d be tempted to recommend it as your first Dobie, that or “Coronado’s Children.”
Actually, do what I did and start with Davis’ “J. Frank Dobie: A Liberated Mind.” You need it to understand the context for any additional Dobie reading.
Some great old Hollywood movies were inspired by these books. And one can find threads of these stories in McMurtry and Wittliff, who spun them into fictional gold.
Dobie might have been a promoter of a Texas that appears in the rearview mirror of an overwhelming urban and suburban state. And he’s not entirely reliable as a historian, but, darn it, he can tell a tale, especially when he sticks to the subject. And his stories birthed a lot of Texas mythology that still shapes the way we think of ourselves today.
Crusading for a time when the rate of new HIV cases in our area drops to zero, AIDS Services of Austin ceremoniously unveiled its new one-stop ASA Moody Medical Clinic on Cameron Road on Monday.
Generously supported by the Moody Family Foundation — which recently made the critical differences for major projects by the Contemporary Austin – LagunaGloria, Waller Creek Conservancyand Pease Park Conservancy — the clinic is aimed at the 7,000 people in our area already with HIV, including the 20 percent who don’t know it yet. Still others may use it during the HIV prevention process.
Surrounded by ASA staff and volunteers, dignitaries including U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo and City Council Members Greg Casar, Ora Houston and Jimmy Flannigan applauded the nonprofit’s progress on what 30 years ago seemed like an impossible campaign to fight AIDS and help those living with it. Now ASA employs 70 people, many of them at the Cameron Road location, as well as at a dental clinic and remote prevention sites. A new one is planned for the area around Airport Boulevard and Springdale Road.
One of the most impressive sights hidden from the public at the Cameron Road HQ is ASA’s food bank, which began with distributions from the trunk of a car, and now looks like a miniature but substantial version of Capitol Area Food Bank.
The Nettie Benson Latin American Collection is a University of Texas treasure you should get to know better.
Founded almost 100 years ago in 1921 with the acquisition of Mexican historian and bibliophile Genaro García‘s library, it grew vastly under the direction of UT professor Carlos Castañeda — partial namesake for the Perry-Castañeda Library — then under historian Nettie Lee Benson. For decades, the Collection has been the finest and most complete library of its kind in the Americas.
When I did research there in the 1980s for my doctoral dissertation, it was referred to by scholars as the “Library of Congress for Latin America.” Sort of like the Ransom Center across campus, its leaders had collected so many books, manuscripts and other objects in its chosen fields, people travel from around the world to visit it.
Crucially, it houses materials that back up some of what was lost in the recent fire that gutted the Brazil Museum.
The Collection, as well as its intimate partner, the Teresa Lozano Long Institute for Latin American Studies, are now receiving more attention locally.
At “An Evening for Discovery,” a recent benefit dinner at the AT&T Center, I ran into many old and new friends, including Maria Cisne Farahani, the woman behind Fara Coffee, which benefits workers in her native Nicaragua (we talked about the brisk change in political will in that country); Monica Peraza, who updated me on the latest at the Long Center, where she now captains the board of directors; attorney and event host Becky Beaver, who is becoming one of the Benson’s most eloquent promoters; Leslie Montoya, a local Univision reporter; Ernesto Rois, who is in the medical parts business (I don’t think that’s the right term, but you understand); and Adriana Pacheco Roldán, a scholar who, with FernandoMacias-Garza, gave $50,000 for an endowment to kick off the Benson’s centennial celebration.
You might already know the newly appointed director of the Bullock Texas State History Museum. That’s because hyper-competent Margaret Koch has already twice served as the museum’s interim director as well as its director of exhibits and deputy director.
Koch previously served as director of exhibitions and research as well as exhibition designer at the Missouri History Museum. In Austin since 2013, she has supervised award-winning shows and has widened the museum’s focus to include previously underreported histories.
She has also overseen improvements and renovations, including conversion of the museum’s IMAX theater projection to an advanced laser format, and a multi-million-dollar rethinking of the first floor gallery, to reopen in November as “Becoming Texas.”
The Bullock will become even more relevant as the corridor north of the Capitol is reshaped and a new cultural space — with a still-undetermined focus — opens in a state office tower across the street from the Bullock and the Blanton Museum of Art.
“Margaret is an experienced and trusted leader,” said Rod Welsh, executive director of the State Preservation Board, the agency that oversees the museum as well as the State Capitol building and grounds, including its statuary, and the Capitol Visitors Center. She “will keep the Bullock at the forefront of best contemporary museum practices as the institution continues to produce new and exciting programs.”
We live in a golden age of investigative journalism.
Not just the renaissance of political reporting at the federal level. But in-depth articles and investigative packages cascading from newspapers such as the American-Statesman, as well as other local, regional and national media.
The Molly Awards celebrate the some of the best work in this renewed civic era. At the same time, the semi-dressy affair at the Four Seasons Hotel Austin raises money for the nonprofit Texas Observer. Much of the attention every year goes to late namesake Molly Ivins, who edited the Observer before moving on to wider prominence at the New York Times, Dallas Times Herald, Fort Worth Star-Telegram, syndicated columns and brainy, brawling books on politics.
The fact that an unabashedly liberal publication gives out these awards obscures the fact that the winning stories show no clear partisan or ideological favoritism. Abuse of power is abuse of power.
Honorable mentions were accorded Seth Freed Wessler (The Investigative Fund, The New York Times Magazine) for exposing a “floating Guantánamos” system of extrajudicial detention of fishermen by the U.S. Coast Guard way outside the usual patrol zones; and Nina Martin, Renee Montagne, Adriana Gallardo, Annie Waldman and Katherine Ellison (ProPublica/NPR) for their “Lost Mothers” series on the death rates of pregnant women in the U.S.
Now, once ceremonial beer steins are distributed, it’s time for red meat. This year’s frank, funny and at times outrageous speaker was Joan Walsh, national affairs correspondent for The Nation and a political contributor on CNN. She pulled no punches going after President Donald Trump and crew.
A nattily dressed young man in the elevator afterwards: “Oh, that was soooo nonpartisan!”
Me: “Agreed. But the awards really are. Corruption is corruption, no matter who commits it. Right?”
It’s impossible to ignore how composed and accomplished they are.
The students from the Ann Richards School for Young Women Leaders are the real celebrities during the annual Reach for the Stars benefit for the Ann Richards School Foundation, now held at Four Seasons Hotel Austin.
They speak with such assurance and wisdom. They are headed to top colleges all over the country. Many are the first in their families to do so.
Julie Apagya Bonney and Ebheni Henderson led the charge before we saw a video interview with Girl Scouts national leader — and former Austinite — Sylvia Acevedo conducted by Maddy Schell and Maggie Saucedo. As if to trump that, young journalist Haley Lone interviewed Oprah pal Gayle King on the set of her TV show.
We throughly enjoyed our conversations at a table front-and-center sponsored by Ellen Richards, the late governor’s daughter who doesn’t have a new book out. (We talked mostly birds and nature.) Then we heard from more Class of ’18 — Eleanor Bailey and Maria Cruz, before Becky Alonso and Gus Flores introduced the winner of the Ann Richards Legacy Award, who happened to be super-sharp former principal Jeanne Goka.
Sorry guys, but I’d trade her for any principal from my past.
I barely glimpsed Ann Richards writer/actor Holland Taylor before slipping out during the “pompoms up” funding round.
My only private concern: Is anyone doing this sort of things for the Bertha Sadler Means Young Women’s Leadership Academy across town? We’ll ask around.
People’s Community Clinic
Anyone who thinks that repasts such as There’s No Such Thing as a Free Lunch are merely light social duties has not been to this fundraiser for People’s Community Clinic now held at the Four Seasons Hotel Austin.
Surrounded by folks at our Becky Beaver-led set of tables such as Nancy Scanlan, Melissa Miller and Nancy Inman would have been intellectually exhilarating enough. But then we heard from clinic CEO Regina Rogoff, Chief Medical Officer Dr. Louis Appel and longtime board member Dr. Nona Niland, all of whom could easily hold my studious attention.
Niland introduced Philip S. Dial, reluctant winner of the W. Neal Kocurek Award, named for the strategist behind much of the city’s enlightened civic health. Despite his reluctance to take the limelight, financial expert Dial made a fine speaker and reminded us that the quiet money aces often make a nonprofit grow and thrive, as he has done for People’s.
The meat of the lunch, so to speak, was a public conversation between Texas Tribune CEO Evan Smith and Dr. Karen DeSalvo, former acting assistant secretary for health in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and now at the University of Texas Dell School of Medicine.
DeSalvo was head of the health department in New Orleans during the Hurricane Katrina crisis and learned much about decentralizing health care and going “upstream” to encourage health before care is needed through community clinics. She believes we need to get past debates on coverage — everybody should be — to talk more about how to save money and lives through community solutions, including a “blue-cities-in-red-states” ones, like the grand experiment going on in Austin right now.
She’s a firecracker and I’d love to profile her for this publication.
The Library was the place to be. Not the Central Public Library. But the blue-and-red rectangular meeting room at Hotel Van Zandt.
It was the location for a Toast of the Town salon to support the Neal Kocurek Scholarship Fund for health sciences careers, operated by the St. David’s Foundation. Thirty of so lucky souls were treated to an enlightening public talk between journalist and author Lawrence “Larry” Wright and journalist and Texas Tribune CEO Evan Smith.
The two had met soon after Smith moved to town in the 1992 to join the staff of Texas Monthly. He was assigned to edit Wright’s piece on the chemical castration of sexual offenders. Wright was for it.
Smith went on to lead Texas Monthly and now the Texas Tribune, while also interviewing top minds on “Texas Monthly Talks” and then “Overheard with Evan Smith” on public television.
My nominee for best reporter in Texas, Wright has been a staff writer for The New Yorker since he left Texas Monthly in the early 1990s. His books include the Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11” as well as “The Terror Years: From Al-Qaeda to the Islamic State,” “Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prism of Belief” and “Thirteen Days in September: Carter, Begin and Sadat at Camp David.”
If those accomplishments were not enough, he writes plays and screenplays, appears on stage, and basks in the glow of the lauded TV adaptation of “The Looming Tower” now streaming on the Hulu channel.
Can you see why I dropped everything for this benefit dinner? Smith devoted his early questions to terrorism and world affairs. Wright believes, for instance, we are ignoring the proliferation of Al-Qaeda and Islamic State beyond their Middle Eastern origins while we are distracted by other crises. He continues to state that the intervention into Iraq was the single worst foreign policy decision in American history.
Smith then moved on to main subject for the evening, Wright’s recent book, “God Save Texas: A Journey into the Soul of the Lone Star State,” parts of which appeared in The New Yorker. On that field in inquiry, both sharp minds need no urging.
Wright’s editor at The New Yorker had asked him to explain Texas, a big task. He did not rely on the standard reports about the recent changes in the state; he spent a year observing the Texas Legislature. After all, Texas could tell us more about the future of the country, especially if its voters participated in elevated numbers.
He came away from his research with with a volume full of conclusions and an urge to run for governor. Wright thinks that the primary jobs of state government are education and infrastructure. Those needs tended to be ignored while state leaders spent an inordinate amount of time and energy on bathroom rules and sanctuary cities. He lays heavy blame on traditional business advocate Gov. Greg Abbott, who sided late in the session with radio personality Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick against outgoing Speaker of the House Joe Straus, who held together state government against all odds.
Wright has much more to say about state and national politics and culture, but as they say, buy and read the book.
One speaker in town who could give Smith or Wright a run for their money is Amy Mills, CEO of Emancipet, an Austin nonprofit that provides free or low-cost spay, neutering and veterinary care at seven clinics in four cities.
The early part of its annual luncheon, which has moved gracefully from the Four Seasons Hotel Austin to the larger banquet hall at the Hyatt Regency Austin, was spent on the tasty vegan fare, video stories of clients and statistics shared by eager board members.
The room grew hushed when Mills rose to the stage. After all, she can so cogently and quickly explain a rapidly expanding and sustainable nonprofit, she would likely trounce every other participant at Philanthropitch.
That fast-action pitch session from nonprofit leaders was an early-week Austin highlight. (I can’t tell you how many ambitious Austin nonprofits are exporting their great ideas around the world. Just a few decades ago, they didn’t look beyond the Austin city limits.)
Some statistics appeared in the printed program. In 2017, the group provided
• 71,539 preventative care visits
• 33,300 free or low cost spay/neuter surgeries
• 622 heartworm treatments
• 177 special surgery procedures
• $883,930 in free services to Houston-area families affected by Hurricane Harvey.
Mills expanded on the last number. With animal welfare partners, they focused, not on lost pets, but on vet care for families hit hard by the storm. They announced that their clinical services would remain absolutely free for 90 days. As workers arrived the first morning, more than 100 people were in line. Some had never visited a vet before. They saw a total of 6,641 animals.
Also in 2017, Emancipet opened its largest clinic ever in Northeast Austin and its first in Philadelphia. It responded to rising vet care costs by seeing 93,576 pets. Just as importantly, they trained 28 vets to take their business model to other markets. They can’t do it all themselves.
Mills saved the most dramatic news for last. Hurricane Maria scattered pets all over Puerto Rico, who then rapidly multiplied. Emacipet with 23 other groups is headed there to spay/neuter 20,000 of them. They will then leave their surgical tools and other equipment there for vets they will train to keep up the work.
On April 24, the Luci Baines Johnson and Lynda Johnson Robb handed over a blue globe resting in bronze hands to former Vice-President Al Gore as part of the 2018 Lady Bird Johnson Environmental Award ceremony in New York City.
Also at the Metropolitan Club that evening, Mark K. Updegrove, president and CEO of the LBJ Foundation, conducted an open conversation with Gore, one of the world’s leading activists on the subject of global warming.
The foundation created the award to keep alive the late first lady’s commitment to environmental awareness.
“As Lady Bird did in the 20th Century, Al Gore’s actions acknowledge this is far bigger than one political philosophy but about what affects and unites us all,” said Larry Temple, chairman of the LBJ Foundation. “He is leading the conservation movement and elevating the public’s consciousness on the importance of acting to solve the climate crisis.”